Today is Ash Wednesday which marks the first day of Lent for the Western Church calendar. Most people think of it as a Catholic thing but it is also practiced by Protestant churches that follow a liturgical calendar (i.e. Episcopalians and Anglicans). It is 40 days long corresponding to significant events in scripture. The flood occurred over 40 days (Gen. 6-9). Israel wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. Moses fasted and was with God on Mt. Sinai for 40 days (Ex. 32). Jesus fasted for 40 days in wilderness in order to be tempted by Satan before his ministry began. Lent seeks to remember these themes of preparing oneself for salvation. The Lord brought another chapter of salvation after each instance of 40 testing, temptation, or wandering. Hence, the main purpose of Lent is spiritual preparation for Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection. It is often viewed as a solemn time of getting in touch with our temptation to evil through abstaining from something we are frequently tempted by.
There are occurrences of God's people fasting through the Bible. Israel fasted annually on the Day of the Atonement (Lev. 16:29, 31) and after the exile to remember Esther's fast for God's intervention and favor (Esther 9:31). People fasted individually and corporately to express grief (2 Sam. 1:12) or as an act of repentance (1 Sam. 7:6; Ne. 9:1-2; Dan. 9:3-4). They fasted to seek's God's will (Ex. 34:28; 2 Chron. 20:3-4). In the New Testament we see Jesus' warn against fasting in order to appear religious (Matt. 6:16-18). His disciples did not fast while he was with them (Matt. 9:14-17; Mk. 2:19-20). But after his ascension the disciples resumed fasting. Notably when it was necessary to discern elders or missionaries (Acts 13:2-3; 14:23). Paul seems to be speaking of voluntary fasting for self-discipline in 2 Cor. 6:5 and involuntary hunger in 2 Cor. 11:27. In both cases he saw these as opportunities to learn to rely on the Lord more deeply.
One of the most significant passages on fasting is Isaiah 58. Here is a prophetic denunciation of thinking fasting will gain a favorable hearing from God when the poor and oppressed are not cared for by God's people. God doesn't approve of fasting that is merely religious and external. God does delight in fasting that is combined with care for another, done in order to sacrifice something to give to another in need. Interestingly, perhaps the most familiar form of fasting in our day is for the sake of politically motivated "hunger strikes."
Spiritual masters through Christian history have emphasized that true fasting is an act of repentance and faith in Christ. It is a spiritual discipline that can enhance putting of the old self and its ways and to put on the new self be remade in Christ's image (Col. 3:5-10). By fasting we remind ourselves that our stomach is a "stubborn child," that the flesh is still at work in us and that we must live by the Spirit. It is not the end in itself. It would be wrong to fast for the sake of Lent alone. We ought to fast in order that Christ would be magnified in us by the Spirit. Abstaining from something only serves to give the flesh an opportunity to reveal itself so that it can be properly crucified.
The biggest reason to fast is simply that in our society we are taught to indulge our flesh and feed worldly desires. We don't need suppression of our desires, we need transformation. Our Lord brought us salvation through his suffering and death. Yet we at the slightest sign of discomfort, eat something, get a drink, grab a pill, etc. We see pain as something that we ought to numb. Rather than seeing pain as an opportunity for God to work in our life and bring joy through a transformed heart. The physical pain in some cases may not go away, but spiritual fruit is produced is eternal.
What are things hindered your relationship with God? Perhaps you are feeling stagnant or stunted spiritually. Take this season as an opportunity to abstain from a guilty pleasure or an activity of distraction (TV, video games, etc) to commit to prayer and meditation on scripture that God may free you from what has enslaved your soul, that you may find freedom in Christ by his Spirit.
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